Whole Foods Banks on Lionfish, Minus the Poisonous Spine

Lionfish are anathema in Florida — an invasive species that feasts on native fish and shellfish, and sports highly poisonous spines. They have no natural predators and swarm all over the state’s warm coastal waters.

That’s the bad news. The good news? Whole Foods stores in Florida just started selling Lionfish fillets — a “white, buttery meat” – minus the poisonous spines…. Yummy.

Eat the Problem

“By reducing the number of lionfish in the wild, Whole Foods Market will help reduce the serious environmental threat they cause,” the company stated in a press release. 

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The government blames the aquarium trade for introducing the fish to the U.S., and encourages you to catch and eat them. So in essence, Whole Foods is doing its part.

Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, and weigh up to 2.5 pounds. They feature distinctive gold and white stripes, and a lion-like mane of poisonous spines that gives them their name. 

While they’re great to look at, they don’t appear to be good eating. But that’s where public relations comes in, and with the fish’s nasty spines, it’s clearly an uphill battle.

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“The spines of this species deliver a venomous sting that can last for days and cause extreme pain, sweating respiratory distress, and even paralysis,”according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The spines make lionfish a challenge to clean. Jackson Sanders, author of Eating Aliens: One Man’s Adventures Hunting Animal Invasive Species, wrote that “if you get poked while you’re handling the fish in a boat or in the kitchen, it’s going to ruin your day.”

Not to worry. “The thoroughly trained team members at Whole Foods Market will receive the lionfish in-store and execute all necessary preparations for shoppers including the removal of the spines,” the release states.

If You Can’t Beat Them Eat Them

Once a lionfish is cleaned and placed on ice, the fish cannot physically release venom from its gland, making it safe for people to eat. Whole Foods describes it as a “delicious seafood option with white, buttery meat”, and offers it for $9.99 per pound.

Edward Steadley, Whole Foods Market associate seafood coordinator, told the Miami New Times that their lionfish are sourced from divers from the Florida Keys to Pensacola and Destin, who deep dive down 120 to 130 feet to spear the fish. Steadley calls the dives, “pretty intense.”

“These divers sometimes dive up to six times a day. It’s not your ordinary, everyday, diving,” he said. 

Why Wait? Get Them on Your Plate

Steadley likes to use lionfish in ceviche, which is a fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime.

“It’s a mild, flaky fish and hands down, it makes the best ceviche you will ever put in your mouth,” he said.  

If you want to catch your own lionfish, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encourages it.

“Removing lionfish can help Florida’s native marine species and habitat. They can be speared, caught in hand-held nets, or caught on hook and line. There is no recreational or commercial harvest bag limit.”

Fish and Wildlife even publishes a list of wholesale dealers eager to buy your catch.

Sound good? Go for it. Just watch out for those spines.

 Photo credit: Wikipedia